Buckeye: Much to discuss, I think, from last night’s season finale, with some reflections on this past season as a whole and on the way Matt Weiner has laid the foundation for his series’ final episodes. Because Mad Men episodes usually take place about a month apart, the gaps in continuity can sometimes be a bit jarring. This feature of the show has been present this year; remember when Betty randomly showed up skinny and with brown hair, then back to her normal blonde a week later? Despite that, though, this sixth season has been more of a slow build, or, depending on how you frame it, a slow descent. Many of the complaints focused on this Mad Men have been of the “we’ve been here before variety”; namely that Don can’t help himself but to booze and cheat and that we’ve seen this about one million times. But think how low he’s fallen in these last three episodes: Don’s usually pretty smooth about his cheating (to my knowledge he’s never been found in the act), but that didn’t stop his own daughter from catching him balls deep in the neighbor’s wife; Sally’s discovery so affected Don that he had curled up in the fetal position in her bed, and later in his office; and Don’s torture continued to the point where he was twitching before giving a client presentation, then going off script in that same presentation to blurt out the truth about his being raised in the whorehouse. It’s clear that Don’s return to form last week by dominating Ted in the board room was more like Manu Ginobili’s Game 5 than any sustained resurgence, but his magnanimous gesture (letting Ted take the Sunkist gig in LA) and the look he shared with Sally outside the house where he grew up suggests possible redemption. Kyra, do you think this is the lowest Don has fallen, and do you actually think he’s redeemable?
kyra: I think the key word you use is “descent.” Let’s not forget that Don began the season by reading Sylvia’s copy of Dante’s Inferno, which I think serves as an apt albeit simplistic metaphor for the season as a whole. I loved an observation that Andy Greenwald made on his podcast a couple weeks ago–basically, he argued that at the end of Season 5 when Don gets approached in the bar by some hotties asking if he’s there alone, many of the show’s fans were like ‘awww yeah Don is back baby!’ Weiner saw this commentary and wanted to turn it on its head. You think you like when Don is womanizing? Well I’ll show you just how bad it can get. Season 6 shows Don’s descent into alcohol and depression, which stems from his affair from Sylvia and its implications. First when Sylvia dumps him and he goes nuts, second when Sally catches them and we see the most confused Don Draper in the history of Mad Men.
A lot to talk about, but maybe we should start with the ending. I think the season ended on a positive note as Don comes clean about his childhood both to his colleagues (although it caused a leave of absence) and his children. A lot can be made of the look shared between Sally and Don at the very end. Are we supposed to think she has forgiven him based on what she sees? How much the two of them can communicate without words I’m not sure, but I think it’s a lot. I have high hopes that Don is on the road to recovery.
Buckeye: I do like how this season’s end set up nicely the question that is at the heart of the series: Is this man capable of being saved? Almost always, the answer is no, Don can’t get out of his own self-destructive path. The final shots of “In Care Of” do suggest some hope though, that Don, reduced again to bachelorhood and for the first time to joblessness, has seen the light and recognized the necessity of changing his ways; in spite of everything he’s done and said, he might yet find a way out of the messes he’s created.
But I still have my doubts; I may have hope but not “high hopes.” This isn’t the first time Don has proven capable of charity or goodness, but Don has usually proven his good deeds to be nothing more than fleeting moments of kindness. He hired a woman to work as something other than a secretary, only to frequently treat her like shit. He gave Sal a free pass when he discovered that Sal was gay, only to scorn “you people” after the gay Lucky Strike dude demanded Sal’s firing. He seemed truly happy to begin his relationship with Megan only to refuse to sacrifice all that much for her own happiness.
I loved the look he shared with Sally because I love watching the relationship between father and daughter unfold, even if it’s often for the worse. Don is not an emotional man, and so his feelings towards most people are pretty one-note: To Don, others are either tolerable or loathsome. There are a few more complications in his relationship with Sally, even before she witnessed his cheating ways. First is that there is plenty of Don in Sally, who can be selfish and manipulative and is no stranger to leaving the house. Second, and more importantly, is that Sally likes Don, and there aren’t too many people in that group. She certainly felt betrayed when she saw Don and Sylvia together, but is predisposed to accept his apology if he can adequately convey one (something he didn’t do in the immediate aftermath but did make a first step towards doing last night). Sally wants her father all to herself, and Don realized that he needed to make it up to her. Taking her to his boyhood home, if you can call it a home, is a start at repairing their relationship on the basis of empathy (as in, I know what you’ve lived through, so here’s a little of what I lived through).
If I am hopeful about any character, I’m very surprised to find myself hopeful for Pete Campbell of all people. Somehow Pete has managed to suppress some of his worst habits–being quick to tattle, seeing others as obstacles–in favor of accepting where he is in life; I think Pete started to come around once Mother barged back in and once he had that quiet but understated conversation with Peggy at the restaurant a couple weeks ago. How’s Pete doing, exactly? NOT GREAT, BOB. (Oustanding performance from Vincent Kartheiser last night; I’m incredulous he’s never received an Emmy nomination for this role. He should after his work in “In Care Of.”) He’s about to leave the only people and city he’s never known for a new life out West that will require him to learn how to drive. Time for some driving lessons, I guess. Would you say you have more hope for Don, who is still burdened by some of his relationships in New York, or Pete, free of his senile mother and the rest of his family, too? I think I’d put my money on Pete right now, but am curious as to your thoughts. If I’m giving Don no quarter, maybe I’m giving Pete too much credit for self-awareness.
kyra: I think Jon Hamm has a good shot at winning his first Emmy courtesy of this episode. He showed immense range, going from confident, slick Don, to a remorseful and broken down Don, to someone with a regained sense of self-worth. Let’s not forget that Dante escapes Hell at the end of Inferno, and I optimistically think Don can escape from his own personal Hell. Of course, this optimism is rife with problems. He makes the decision to go/not go to California unilaterally, with no regard for Megan’s feelings. Even though the decision may come from a heart-warming place, as he lets Ted escape his own problems in New York and realizes he can’t run from his past, he’s still not treating his wife as an equal. Finally, she leaves him (I assume). He’s also out of a job, with his Hershey’s stunt serving as the final straw in what was alcohol-fueled self-destruction this season. Even with a renewed focus on his kids, can Don really be a loving father? There’s not much evidence of it so far. Even his phone call with Sally to tell her about her deposition felt so awkward–not a normal father-daughter interaction. However the moment when his hand shook while delivering the Hershey’s pitch truly felt like an epiphany. He hated the person he was claiming to be; not just lying about having a loving father, but simply being Don Draper. So he did what he could to change his life in typical Don fashion: he intentionally says something weird during a client meeting. While a classic Don maneuver doesn’t exactly suggest change is coming, certainly his openness and honesty can foster closer relationships.
I agree that Pete became a much more sympathetic character with the re-introduction of his mother, which came on the heels of the separation from Trudy. First of all, dealing with Alzheimer’s is simply sad and frustrating. Then you add in his poor job prospects at work (something that the show hasn’t done a good job of explaining). He thinks he has the upper hand with his knowledge of Benson’s secret, but once again something goes wrong, and he’s thrown off the Chevy account. By the end of “In Care Of” Pete legit has nothing except the clothes on his back and a first class prep school education, but for the first time I actually feel bad for him. Peggy helped show Pete this season at his most human, and I hope he can pull his life back together. This has been a banner year for Vincent Kartheiser. He definitely deserves an Emmy nom. Also, that line you quoted coupled with Pete’s expression in that scene was incredible.
So much else to talk about! I think perhaps the most important image of the episode is Peggy sitting in Don’s chair. Finally, her rise from a lowly secretary is complete, and as I argued earlier in the season, it confirms that Peggy, not Pete, is Don’s protege. Peggy has had her heart trampled on this season. Abe tells her he hates everything she stands for, while Ted completely jerks her around. However, unlike Don, it doesn’t seem like Peggy’s work has been affected by this emotional roller coaster. She consistently is putting out great work and her future looks bright, albeit without romance for the moment. Is there still a chance her and Stan get together? Speaking of Stan, how is he gonna handle not getting the California position?
One last topic to prompt you on–what about poor Ginsburg? He was at best an afterthought this season, with only one real storyline (where he goes on a hilarious blind date) to call his own. Is this a case of there being too much other important stuff happening at SC&P that Weiner scrapped his plot? Or has Ginsburg been completely marginalized in favor of Bob Benson?
Buckeye: I saw on Sunday night that Tim Burke of Deadspin noticed the totally-not-coincidental parallels between the shot of Peggy sitting in Don’s chair and the very first shot of the series, of Don sitting down in a bar. (You could make the same parallels between the shot of Peggy and the opening credit sequence–see how I fit that sucker in?–or basically any shot of Don sitting down, but the point definitely gets across.) You’re right about Peggy’s rise (she’s the senior creative person at the agency with Don told to take it in and Ted bolting to LA), and alongside Don Mad Men is also very much her story, but her ascendance has come at a cost: both of her mentors are gone, both of her love interests (Abe, then Ted) are gone. You correctly noted that Peggy got trampled on this season; she gets trampled on every season, and a lot of that has to do with her horrible taste in men (either for married men like Ted or losers like Duck Phillips). Stan and her would make a great match, I’m sure, but even they’d need to work on the romance part of it, as it was only just recently that Peggy, feeling lonely, turned to Stan for a late night booty call that he rebuffed.
It was odd to see Ginsberg marginalized this season, especially because it was news that the actor who portrays him got a bump up to the main cast this year. Instead he had little more than thirty seconds of exasperation a week to show for that promotion, and it’s a bit of a shame, because Ginsberg is one of Mad Men‘s more colorful characters, and the rapport he shares with Stan and Peggy is one of the series’ more interesting and vibrant dynamics. I was disappointed his personal life got shortchanged, too, especially after his awkward blind date made for one of Season 6’s best moments.
Unfortunately, Ginsburg wasn’t the only character done a bit of a disservice by the writing staff this season. I found that Joan’s storyline went missing after the season’s first quarter (following her Mary Kay-saleswoman-friend’s visit); Matt Weiner never returned to her seizing of the Avon account, either, in these last weeks. Mad Men is still yet to do right by Dawn, Don’s black secretary, and in retrospect the decision to only peek into that character’s personal life right before the Martin Luther King assassination episode feels wrong, like a bit of tokenism. The show just shouldn’t have bothered. As much as Pete grew on me this year, Kyra did observe that we never saw Pete struggle at work, though he referred to his difficulties at the agency frequently, until the finale, but I think I’d quibble slightly with that. We never saw Pete struggle in his work, but we saw him struggle in other areas–cheating on his wife, taking a haymaker to the face, dealing with his old mother, getting hit on by a colleague–for which one of the most obvious consequences would be an inattention to work. We knew Pete’s life was going in reverse before he backed that Camaro into the GM display, and his personal foibles drove the point home without having to watch him fuck up a bunch of accounts.
But while the show disserviced some characters, it augmented others’ profiles. The character upon whom some are heaping praise is Betty; the episode where Don and Betty visited Bobby’s camp and revisited the bedroom was one of my favorites this season. Andy Greenwald called her the most improved this season, and I’d have to say I agree, as this year was the first time in a long while I’ve viewed Betty as anything other than loathesome and adolescent (though much of that has to do with viewing scenes involving Betty through either Don’s or Sally’s eyes). The same could be said of Henry Francis, who first felt like an interloper but is now the steadiest father figure the Draper children have (barring Don getting his act together).
Consequently, then, I think it was a typical Mad Men season. It’s important to keep in mind that the show has a rather large cast, so it shouldn’t surprise that some characters take priority over others. You got your cheating, your drinking, your inner turmoil, your opaque history lessons. A lot of people have complained about the season, that it’s too much of a retread. I accept that criticism, but I’d also ask those critiquing the show on these grounds to go back and actually watch every other season: My guess is they’d be saying the same thing about Seasons 2, 3, 4, and 5. Mad Men is a show that hits the pause button only infrequently; if characters are overcoming their flaws it rarely lasts for more than a couple episodes. That’s why I’m not so hopeful for Don’s end just yet, because I don’t think a little nod is going to earn his daughter’s forgiveness; he’ll need a lot more nods. But it’s also why I’m coming back for the final seventh season, and expecting more of the same in 2014. And if Jim Cutler wants to inject everybody with speed again (“The Crash” was definitely my favorite hour this year) and if Bob Benson wants to keep on being a mysterious motherfucker, I’m all for that, too. Any concluding thoughts on the season as a whole?
kyra: I think you summed up much of my criticism, which mainly centers on half- or quarter-finished plot arcs. I do want to say though that I reject the re-tread criticism. When a show has been on as long as Mad Men (especially with the hiatus between Seasons 4 and 5), you need to return to your roots. I thought Weiner did a great job this year showing how much life has progressed since the start of the show, and thought the parallels added rather than subtracted. I enjoyed remembering so much about the earlier seasons that I loved. And it’s not like this was a carbon copy. Don has probably never faced an opponent like Ted Chaough, and he’s never had an affair blow up in his face like it had this season. We see Sally’s evolution from her broken home, which inevitably led to drinking and rebellion. Peggy continues to rise; Benson tries to become Don in a different era; Pete needs to start a new life; and so we head towards 1969. The moon landing! What a symbol of American strength! Good luck to them all, the 70’s are closing in fast.